There's a Chinese proverb that goes, 'Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men.' And when it comes to maple syrup, that certainly is true.
While some people may look for spring in the year's first robin ' personally, I look for the return of the fruit stand to Library Mall ' spring is also the season of sap flow throughout Wisconsin. Sap flows up from tree roots to trunk, bringing life into the tree and liquid gold into the buckets of Wisconsin tappers.
In the first half of the 19th century maple products, particularly maple sugar, were among Wisconsin's first commercial agricultural commodities, and they were used for centuries before by the Ojibwe, Menominee and Ho-Chunk people as drink, candy, sweetener and seasoning. Commercial maple sugar production peaked in the 1860s, though, done in by the arrival of cheaper sugar imports and the introduction of Wisconsin beet sugar.
To keep the industry going, producers converted more and more of the sap into sweet syrup, a favorite luxury item on 19th-century tables. Production stabilized in the 1950s, and today, virtually all of the state's maple sap is made into syrup rather than sugar. Wisconsin consistently ranks among the top maple-syrup-producing states in the country.
From the Atlantic Coast to Ontario, Wisconsin and Minnesota ' wherever the days are warm and the nights cold ' people slash the bark of maples to encourage the sap to drip from mid-February to April. While sugar maples produce the most sap, it is also possible to tap red and silver maples, box elders and birch. Sugar maples take about 40 years to reach tappable size.
The sap drawn from maples is colorless, watery and nearly tasteless, offering no hint of its sugary content. It is only in the arduous task of boiling ' and boiling ' that the sap becomes syrup. It takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Maple syrup is tested and graded according to density, color and taste. Grades have nothing to do with purity or sweetness, but rather with the syrup's ability to transmit light. Grades run from Grade A's three subdivisions ' Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber ' to Grade B, which is sometimes referred to as cooking syrup. Canadian researchers have divided maple syrup even further, creating 13 flavor families, 39 subfamilies, and 91 'flavor attributes' that range from banana to hay.
Unfortunately, the syrup you often see in the supermarket is primarily corn syrup. Be wary of anything labeled 'table' or 'pancake' syrup. Real maple syrup is labeled as such and is sold at the Dane County Farmers' Market by local producers, including Engel's Sugar Bush, Little Creek Maple Bush and Mother King's.
Maple syrup can be used in place of refined sugar in recipes. A good rule of thumb is 3/4 cup of syrup for every cup of sugar. And maple syrup is more than just a breakfast topping. Try it on ice cream, mixed with butter on roasted root vegetables, drizzled on carrots or added to salad dressings.
To see maple syrup making firsthand, visit the MacKenzie Center in Poynette on Saturday, April 7, 9 am-2 pm, for tours, demonstrations and a pancake breakfast.
MacKenzie Environmental Education Center
W7303 County Highway CS, Poynette, 608-635-8110; www.mackenziecenter.com